For people interested in language, linguistically-interesting bits grow on pretty much all of the trees in the forest of communicative interaction. In order to get on with life, we let most of the specimens pass without comment. But the first two segments of this week's Car Talk radio show, which I listened to with half an ear while I waited for a computer program to finish running, rose to the threshold of bloggability: the first segment because it offered a nice exchange on what an "accent" is, suitable for use in my new lecture notes for this year's Linguistics 001; and the second segment bcause it relates to a recent and celebrated British libel case.
The first listener who called in with a problem was Mary from Atlanta, and the interaction started like this:
For non-American readers, I'll note that Tom and Ray Magliozzi are actually from Cambridge MA, and exhibit (perhaps sometimes in exaggerated form) the accent characteristic of working-class residents of the Boston area. And when Mary suggests that they're from New jersey, this is clearly intended as a jocular insult (New Jersey is the Belgium of the United States, just as Belgium is the New Jersey of Europe), which Tom and Ray recognize and respond to with the remark about the "witness protection program".
The second caller was Mike from Vergennes, VT, who called because his 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood was bouncing up and down whenever he turned hard to one side or the other at low speed. As is often the case, Tom and Ray disagreed about the diagnosis. (I'm not sure which brother is which in this passage, so I'll transcribe them as B1 and B2):
|B1:||I'm assuming that it's in the alignment, somehow.|
|B2:||Oh no, I think it's ((indistinct))|
|B1:||You don't think so.|
|B2:||Think about it.|
|B1:||See, I'm thinking that one of the wheels…|
That sets up the disagreement. Now listen to how it develops:
|B1:||See, I'm thinking that one of the wheels|
|B1:||is not turning right.|
|B2:||Nah, that's bogus!|
|B1:||I know it is, I know it is, but that' s the feeling I'm getting, I'm using- I'm using all my intuition here.|
|B2:||Here's what you do.|
The critical question is, what does bogus mean in this context?
According to Sir David Eady, the presiding judge in the English High Court, when Simon Singh used the word bogus to describe chiropractic treatments for "children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying" as "bogus", he was asserting that such treatments are dishonest or fraudulent. (See here, here, and here for some background and discussion.)
Could bogus be used in that sense here? I don't think so. Tom and Ray are not above accusing one another jocularly of fraud, but in this case, I believe it's very clear that the word is used to mean "unsupported by evidence". That's why Brother 1 admits that his diagnosis is "bogus", but defends it anyhow because "that's the feeling I'm getting" and "I'm using all my intuition here". In other words, he has a hunch, not an inference from facts to conclusion.
And of course, "unsupported by evidence" is exactly what Simon Singh clearly (in my opinion) meant bogus to mean in his Guardian opinion piece of April 19, 2008, "Beware the spinal trap".
In the end, B2 suggests a more plausible etiology for Mike's problem: a slipping power-steering belt. And in the real world, Mike has long ago figured out what the problem really was (or junked the car) — this was an "encore presentation", i.e. a re-run, originally broadcast in 1997 or so, more than a decade before Simon Singh's article. But even if the problem turned out to be a wheel not turning properly, that diagnosis would still have been bogus, in the sense that it was unsupported by evidence. Even a bogus idea can be right from time to time.